Delayed Spring? Pros and Cons for Northern Gardeners

With about 4 inches of snow on the ground already from our current storm and another 2 to 4 predicted during the day, it seems a good time to consider the pros and cons of a delayed spring.

For those not from Minnesota, since the beginning of 2018, we have had two days (yes, just two) with a high temperature of 50 degrees or higher in the Twin Cities. Both of those days were in March—and neither of them topped 55. Currently, we are in a broken record of 30-degree days with nights in the 20s interrupted only by intermittent snowstorms. Some weather forecasters have said this will last into mid-April. Others say we get a break next week.  (I hope these guys are right.)  So what happens in the garden when spring takes forever to arrive?

A couple of pros of a delayed spring come immediately to mind:

Less chance of freeze damaging fruit crops. Back in 2012, we had an extremely early spring, with my cherry tree (and lots of apple trees) blooming in early April—about four weeks ahead of usual. When the inevitable frost came, many fruit crops were severely damaged. That won’t happen this year.

Adequate soil moisture. This year, Minnesota has had an average amount of snow or a bit higher. Since there has been some thawing of the ground, these late season snows should give us decent soil moisture going into the planting season.

I’m sure there are some other benefits to a slow spring, but there are plenty of cons, too.

In 2015, crocus were blooming in my yard on March 31. In 2016, they were blooming on March 15. This year, nothing but snow so far.

When things bloom, it will be a bloom explosion! When spring comes on gently and slowly as it did last year, blooms emerge gradually in a steady parade of color from the yellows of forsythia to creamy magnolias, pink rhododendrons, redbuds, fruit trees and lilacs. Bulbs do the same.  In the best of years, this unfolding of color can start in late March. A delayed spring means everything rushes to bloom at once—boom. It’s marvelous when it happens, but wow, it doesn’t last long. And, for people with allergies, all that blooming means lots of types of pollen all at once. On the upside, the pollen count in my neighborhood today is zero!

A pansy pile up at the local garden centers! I visited a couple of garden centers during a slightly warm day 10 days ago, and the pansy bowls were piled up in the greenhouses. While pansies can tolerate temps down to 26, it’s best not to put them outdoors fulltime until nighttime temperatures are reliably in the 40s. So, hold off for at least a week. After that, rush to your local garden center, because you will be starved for color!

I wrote a profile of this DIY greenhouse for the November/December 2017 issue of Northern Gardener. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse!

A slow start in the vegetable garden. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse, because it’s going to be awhile before the soil temperature is warm enough to plant even cool-season crops such as lettuce and peas.  Seeds for vegetables such as radishes and lettuce will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but it takes a lot longer to germinate at 40 than it does at 50 or 60 degrees. So, fire up those indoor light systems and give your vegetables a head start inside. Just for perspective, the soil temperature in my raised beds right now is 35 degrees. We’ve got a way to go.

Hungry birds. I haven’t seen any robins yet though they could be around, but I have definitely noticed more birdsong in the morning. If you garden for birds, keep the feeders full and put out some water for them. It will be awhile before they can nibble on insects in the garden.

Speaking of insects, a long winter is unlikely to affect populations of Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers and other insects gardeners consider pests. Bummer.

Enjoy the snow day!

 

 

 

 

A Visit to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

Bromeliads in a display case Marie Selby garden
What a great way to display bromeliads — in the world’s largest IKEA bookcase.

Like a lot of northerners, I like a winter escape—preferably to Florida. While it’s not always possible to get away, the past couple of winters my husband and I have taken a break from the snow, ice and potholes in St. Paul to spend some time in Sarasota, Florida. Whenever we are here, we visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

View of Sarasota Bay from Selby Gardens
No matter where you go in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota Bay is within view.

These gardens celebrate all things Florida, with lots of native plants, palms and brightly colored annuals, all arrayed along the shores of Sarasota Bay. Viewing the gardens with sailboats and water behind them is a good part of the fun. The gardens began as the estate of William and Marie Selby, who were among the residents flocking to Sarasota in the 1920s. Marie was the first woman to cross country by car! She loved Sarasota and she and William (a co-owner of the Selby Oil Co.) built a Spanish-style home and expansive gardens along the bay. When Marie died in 1971, she asked that the property become a botanic garden. The garden opened in 1975 and specializes in epiphytes, organisms that live on the surface of other plants.

Orchid at Marie Selby Gardens
Orchids were in bloom throughout the conservatory at the Marie Selby Gardens.

The gardens include a conservatory, with a huge collection of bromeliads and orchids, lots of mangroves, ferns and, of course, epiphytes as well as a huge banyan tree with a climbing structure nearby that is perfect for children (and adults) to climb on. Annual flowers are on display around the gardens and there is ample seating and winding paths to make the visit relaxing. The docent-led tours are informative and give visitors great context for visiting the garden.

Many years, the garden hosts an exhibition of a well-known artist’s work that is connected to gardening. This year, the exhibit is Andy Warhol: Flowers in the Factory and focuses on nature as an inspiration in the work of many pop artists. Warhol-inspired works are displayed around the garden and the exhibit gives viewers a compact history of Warhol and his compatriots. A highlight for me was the exhibit of several prints called Flowers, which Warhol created in 1964. To make the prints, he started with a photograph he saw in Modern Photography magazine (taken by someone else). He stripped out the detail and colors from the photo, then added more back, creating a fascinating series of floral prints. Shades of Instagram!

The photographer who took the original photo, Patricia Caulfield, later sued Warhol for copyright infringement. The interesting thing is, Warhol built his career  on changing other iconic images, such as the Campbell Soup can and Marilyn Monroe.

If you are near Sarasota, the Marie Selby Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit.  Take the docent-led tour and stop by the cafe for a light lunch or a cup of coffee. It will make for a lovely day in a city that is rapidly becoming my favorite Florida getaway.

Yours truly enjoying the gardens. I agree completely with Warhol on the beauty of our land.

 

Garden Planning with Pinterest and Paper

We’ve been in our St. Paul house about 20 months now, and I’m finally getting ready to tackle the landscaping and gardens (or lack of both) in the front yard.

This is a big project: it will likely involve removing and replacing sidewalks and it will definitely require rerouting water to correct issues we have with icy areas and sloping walks.  I did the design and the installation on our backyard myself, but this project requires a skill level and muscle beyond what I have. I know from previous garden installations we’ve done that it really helps the landscapers if you can provide them with a good sense of what you want done, what plants you like and what your vision for the project is. Then, they can add to that or let you know what is not going to work. It makes for a happier and probably cheaper project.

So, I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks trying to get what is in my head into a form that is shareable, and to do that I’ve been using both Pinterest and paper.

While I haven’t used Pinterest much in the past few years, I revived my account and created a board with some of the ideas I’m thinking about. One thing I’ve discovered is that the style of house we have is tricky to landscape well.  It has no front porch and the door to the front is flat—no roof over it, no stoop, no ornamentation. It’s technically called a “minimal traditional” house and was popular in the 1930s to 1940s when people were absorbed with other issues like the Great Depression and World War II. Keep the houses simple was the mantra.

The current situation minus about a foot of snow

Simple is good. Boring not so much, and that’s what we’ve got going now. The three shrubs in our foundation beds are ancient and overgrown. We’ve done some aggressive pruning to shape them and that’s helped, but they need to go. I replaced some of the perennials (mostly Stella d’Oro daylillies) with plants I like better, but the whole front bed needs to be redone. We planted a Minnesota strain redbud tree on one side of the yard about halfway to the street, and I would like to pull the front bed out to include that tree with a path to the back fence through the bed.

I’m also interested in creating a pollinator garden, and likely will put that in the boulevard area of the yard. I have a pollinator plant Pinterest board as well.  St. Paul has a few rules about boulevard gardens — the main one affecting me being that plants cannot be more than three feet tall. I can work with that.

Rough draft of pollinator garden idea plus some plant pictures.

For both gardens, I’ve created a notebook, where I’ve done some clunky drawings as well as pasted pictures of designs and plants that I like. The notebook is really helpful because it’s a physical object I can look at in quiet moments and page through. To me, it seems more concrete than the Pinterest board, where everything seems possible. It’s a great way to create rough drafts of ideas. I can also give it to the landscaper when the time comes. I’ve been reading some design books as well, and found a few good ones at the local public library. A couple of the designs spoke to me, so I copied those pages and pasted them in the book, too.

These designs won’t work for my house, but there’s something in the ideas that I find appealing.

So far, I’ve only given slight thought to budget—though that will be ironed out before we contact landscapers. For now, it’s mostly about dreaming and letting my ideas find some shape, whether on paper or on the internet. Let me know in the comments how you like to capture ideas for your garden.

January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

Two New Garden Books to Read

There are so many solid gardening books out now that it’s hard to keep up with them. Here are mini-reviews of two that I’ve read lately and appreciate.

The Wellness Garden

Chicago-area gardener, writer and blogger Shawna Coronado recently came out with a new book on her experiences gardening with chronic disease. Called The Wellness Garden: How to Grow, Eat and Walk Your Way to Better Health (Cool Springs Press, 2017), it describes how she used food, gardening and walking to deal with extreme chronic pain.  The book begins with her own health journey. Coronado was diagnosed with severe degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, which made gardening and other activities incredibly painful. Working with a nutritionist, she changed how she eats, banning grains, sugars and dairy from her diet and adding in more wholesome fats (avocados, seeds, etc.) and organic vegetables. This anti-inflammatory diet reduced her pain levels significantly, and she was able to add walking 60 minutes a day and yoga, as well as gardening, to her health routine over time.

For gardeners, the book offers encouragement and advice on growing foods organically and extending the gardening season so you can enjoy healthy homegrown vegetables for much of the year. She also offers wonderful tips on growing food in raised containers to reduce stooping and bending as well as how to use tools in ways that are less likely to cause injury or pain. These techniques are thoroughly illustrated and explained—and should be mandatory reading for gardeners over 50. Some of the gardening information may be familiar to experienced gardeners, but Coronado’s focus on health and exercise makes this a unique book for gardeners. It also recognizes and celebrates something many of us know in our hearts—physically, emotionally and spiritually, gardening heals.

For those with health concerns, especially chronic disease, the book offers a well-researched road map to improved well-being. I loved that Coronado rebutted some of the silly health claims floating around the internet. Her advice about a vegetable-heavy diet, yoga for improved mental health and walking as a way to strengthen and heal the body is given with clarity, kindness, enthusiasm and appropriate caveats about seeking medical advice for your specific condition. My only quibble is I wish she had included a menu of what she eats each day—I think that would have helped readers understand how to put the diet together better. But that is minor. Overall, this is an inspiring book for anyone who wants to be healthier and knows that can be achieved in the garden.

Fresh from the Garden

I was happy to attend the Terrace Horticultural Book Awards event earlier this year for John Whitman, author of Fresh From the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). John has written or co-written several other guides for northern gardeners and is an expert at getting the most from your garden. His books are known for being thorough and well researched.

Fresh from the Garden is a comprehensive guide to growing vegetables in the North. Whitman begins with more than 100 pages of instructions on everything from building soil to growing vegetables in containers, raised beds and straw bales as well as thorough descriptions of seed types, seed starting procedures, transplanting, watering, staking and just about anything else you need to know to grow a good vegetable garden. The remainder of the book is a plant-by-plant list of what you might grow in a northern vegetable garden.

Each chapter covers growing needs, seed selection and starting, diseases and pests as well as mulching, thinning or pruning, if needed. It also includes lists of varieties of each vegetable that grow well in the North. I plan to use this as a reference as I’m selecting seeds and deciding what to grow in next year’s garden.  It’s also helpful for plants you have had problems with in the past as Whitman covers so many of the possible problems you might have with each plant.

For a dedicated vegetable gardener, this would be a fantastic gift and eventually a well-worn reference from a source you can trust.

What books are you gardening books are you reading now?

 

 

 

Holiday Mini-Container, Book Signings and a Very Chilly Dog

It’s a big weekend ahead for me, with two book signings and lots of holiday decorating to do around the house. I love putting together holiday containers for outside my front door, so I thought it would be fun to do a mini-container to take with me this weekend to spruce up my table at the signings.

The first event is from noon to 4 at the Warden House in Stillwater, where I will be one of several authors signing books of regional interest. Stillwater is a fun town for shopping and wandering around—it reminds me of another terrific Minnesota town: Northfield! I hope folks will come down and check it out. The second signing is at the Minnesota History Center, where it is double discount days for members of the historical society. I’ll be hanging around on Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. signing books. A whole bunch of the Minnesota Historical Society Press authors are being featured this weekend.

Once everything was assembled, putting this together took about 10 minutes.

Because it’s nice to have something to talk about with people (besides the book, of course), I put together this simple pot. The container is a small terra-cotta pot that I painted red and black, and filled with dirt. I found the reading Santa figure at Joann Fabrics for 60 percent off and he seemed like an appropriate addition. I glued a large nail to his base so he would be anchored during transport. Then, I surrounded Santa with greens, mostly from my yard, such as spruce, arborvitae, rhododendron and sedum. The boxwood and other greens came from a bouquet I purchased at the store, most of which is available for other decor.

We really do not keep our house as chilly as Lola’s blanket might indicate. She watched the container decorating with interest.

Once I had painted the pot, snipped the greens and bought the Santa, the whole project took less than 10 minutes to put together, under the watchful gaze of Lola, the dog, who is not enjoying our recent cold weather. While I like the way the pot looks, I may add a bow or something to brighten it up.

I’m working on a bigger container for my porch, which I hope to get finished soon since the holidays are coming on fast.

What are your favorite holiday container ideas?

Fascinating Foliage

I don’t know about you, but when it’s cold out, I tend to pull in on myself—shoulders go up, chin comes down—it’s as if I’m trying to make myself smaller in order to  stay warmer. I thought of that recently as I’ve been observing the fascinating foliage on the P.J.M. rhododendron near my front door.

As the season changes, the rhododendron has been telling me how cold it is outside each morning. On chilly days — say in the teens or 20s — the leaves of the rhododendron are turned down and rolled in, sort of like a tube. If the weather is warmer—high 30s or 40s—the foliage is in its usual flat shape.

It was 18 degrees the morning I took this picture.

Rhododendrons are broad-leaf evergreens. Unlike deciduous shrubs, they do not lose their leaves over the winter. The buds for next year’s flowers and the leaves hold on through most of the winter. According to the University of Minnesota, the curling action is a way to hold onto water during the dry, cold parts of the year.  Sometimes curling is caused by disease, but that often happens during the growing season and this rhodie looked fine all summer long.

Rhododendron at 25 degrees

We’ve had a wet fall and this is a long-established shrub, so I don’t think it is struggling for water either. It’s perhaps just upset about the suddenly cold weather we’ve had! Are the leaves on your rhododendrons curling too?

Rhododendron at 40 degrees